Olga Surkova’s life has been turned upside down over the past three months but her passion for rugby and desire to grow the game in Ukraine remain undimmed.
In the wake of the Russian invasion, Surkova made the decision to leave her hometown, Odessa, with her son Yegor.
Aided by friends she had made through rugby, the pair headed first to Chisinau in Moldova, before travelling further west to the Romanian capital Bucharest, from where they caught a flight to Paris.
The Surkovas have since settled in Périgueux, in south-west France, where Olga is coaching at a local rugby academy and attempting to learn the language. Her husband, Ivan, remains in Odessa, where he prepares food for the defence forces.
“The Russian invasion killed all the hopes and plans that we had this year in Ukraine for the next steps of development,” Surkova told World Rugby.
“They destroyed our country, houses, roads, sports facilities and industrial facilities [but] they won’t break our spirit and willpower.
“We are on the side of good… I pray every day that this all ends, and I can return to my family.
“The war had a negative impact on rugby, all our competitions were cancelled in the domestic championship but due to the support of passionate people, we will be able to participate in the European Championship (U18) with the women's and men's teams.
“Everyone who stayed in Ukraine continues to train and play when safe, and those who left, they continue to actively train and play.
“After the end of the war, I think everyone will return and start working on our capabilities to do everything better.”
Developing Ukrainian rugby
Surkova is certainly working hard in France to make sure she is ready to do just that when she is able to return home to Odessa.
Prior to the invasion she had served as the head of the Women’s Committee of the National Rugby Federation of Ukraine for two years and had developed a series of programmes designed to encourage an increase in female participation.
On 8 March, at around the time she was planning her expedition across Europe to safety, Surkova was confirmed as a Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme recipient for 2022.
“I was very happy about this moment, for my country and our development of rugby,” she said. “I was extremely happy.
“I want to find new communication opportunities in the world of women's rugby, because women's leaders are special ladies for me and being with them you understand where you need to follow and go in order to achieve your goals.”
Surkova hopes to use the programme to develop her leadership skills and to help her learn more about modern marketing techniques.
She understands it will be difficult to restore Ukrainian rugby to where it was before the invasion, but says she is motivated to do so by the “love and passion for our game [that] still remains for many who stayed and left”.
The programme is the latest step on a journey that began 13 years ago, as a 22-year-old student, when she first started playing rugby.
“I loved rugby at first sight,” Surkova remembered.
“I was hooked by the atmosphere and friendliness of the team. Rugby is a miniature of life, you run, you fall, you get up and go to your goal and most importantly your support and your team is a family. Thank God for introducing me to this game.”
“Leadership positions do not scare me”
During a successful playing career, which came to an end last year, Surkova represented the Ukraine women’s sevens team for a decade and captained her country. After retiring from international rugby in 2019, she then worked as the national team’s manager.
“Being the captain of a team is a very responsible moment, you have to support everyone to tune into the game and help when it’s difficult for someone on the field and off the field,” she said.
“For me, it has always been a pride to represent the honour of my country and team. The captain is the conscience, mind and honour of the team.”
Surkova added: “It seems to me that since childhood I have very good skills to organise, create and control.
“My leadership positions do not scare me, so I always have a plan and a backup if something goes wrong.
“I think being a good leader is not only a status… [it’s about having] the right tools and the team you work with and communication.”
It was while she was still an important member of the national team that Surkova decided to try her hand at refereeing, to give herself a deeper understanding of the game.
“It helps a lot, and you watch the game from the other side,” she said.
“To be a referee is to be always in the game and on the field and feel the emotions of the teams, and as a referee I try to keep the entertainment of the game within the rules.
“Refereeing gives me an adrenaline rush since I completed my career as a player. I will develop in this direction because I have a good dream and I need to go for it.”
Three years ago, she served as an assistant referee when Ukraine’s men took on Sweden in a test in her hometown.
“I treat any match with great responsibility and this match was no exception,” she said of the experience. “I did my job and enjoyed it. Men's games are always very exciting for me.”
Looking to the future, Surkova is hopeful she can use the network she has access to through the programme to help grow rugby around the world.
From a personal perspective, she has not given up hope of refereeing at the Olympic Games and wants to continue her coaching journey, which started in Odessa and continues today in Périgueux.
“The goals are to help develop rugby in those countries where it is needed and if there are great people there who want to change something, then I want to find them. Unite and take decisive steps forward,” she said.
“[I want to] learn a new profession of marketing and improve the quality of work in this industry to create an application with my talented colleagues from France, which will help many coaches to lay the right foundations of love for our game.”